The Age of Murdoch

Many see him as a power-mad, rapacious right-wing vulgarian. Rupert Murdoch has indeed been relentless in building a one-of-a kind media network that spans the world. What really drives him, though, is not ideology but a cool concern for the bottom line—and the belief that the media should be treated like any other business, not as a semi-sacred public trust. The Bush Administration agrees. Rupert Murdoch has seen the future, and it is him

For all the surreal, ultimately pointless show-trial aspects of the session, there was a larger historical logic to the meeting between Murdoch (who must have left the room thinking They didn't lay a glove on me) and the forces of government that day. Two great and opposing conceptions of the press and its role in public life had just collided. One of them holds that the press is basically different from other businesses: the unique protection it enjoys under the First Amendment gives it unique responsibilities to serve the public interest. The other holds that the news business is basically the same as other businesses. The second version—the Murdoch version—has now won, and Murdoch deserves to move from "controversial" to "visionary" status.

It is thanks largely to Joseph Pulitzer, who invented a new kind of journalism in the late 1800s, that newspapers moved from the open partisanship of an earlier era to a pretense of objectivity today. Henry Luce transformed magazine journalism before World War II with Time, Fortune, and Life. After the war a handful of television-news pioneers created the documentary form, the evening newscast, the Sunday talk show, and other staples. Then TV news changed again, starting in the late 1970s, through the efforts of, among others, Roone Arledge, of ABC, who made news profitable; Ted Turner, of CNN, who made the news cycle continuous; and Larry King and Geraldo Rivera, who merged news and entertainment.

Rupert Murdoch is this era's influential figure. His holdings have grown surprisingly fast, over a surprisingly long period of time. The cartoon explanation of his success is that he is ruthless or power-mad or even today's Hitler, as his former friend and current antagonist Ted Turner has called him. The real explanation is that he has combined several crucial ingredients—an instinct for mass taste, an appreciation of technology, a concept of strategic business structure, and a knack for exploiting political power—in a new and uniquely effective way. His is not the largest media company, but it is now the model to beat—or to imitate.

A Taste for Risk and Contention

Rupert Murdoch was born into a newspaper family, but one far less established than those of his near contemporaries Arthur ("Punch") Sulzberger Sr., of The New York Times, and Otis Chandler, of the Los Angeles Times. (Both are a few years older than Murdoch, and both are retired.) Murdoch's father, Keith, was the son of a Presbyterian minister who had emigrated from Scotland to Australia in the 1880s. Early in life Keith decided that he wanted to be a reporter. After an apprenticeship in his home town, Melbourne, his big break came during World War I. He took part in an early version of "embedding" with Australian and New Zealand troops at Gallipoli, where he assured the commanding general that what he saw would remain confidential. In violation of that assurance, he then wrote a bitter letter to the Australian Prime Minister about conditions for ANZAC (Australia and New Zealand Army Corps) troops. Eventually the general was recalled, the troops were withdrawn, and Keith Murdoch, age thirty, became known as a man who could rock the boat. "Oh, sure, it may not have been fair," Rupert Murdoch told an interviewer, Gerard Henderson, in 1989. "But it changed history, that letter."

The rest of Keith Murdoch's rise in journalism had a similarly scrappy, anti-elite quality. He went to London and learned the techniques of mass marketing from Alfred Harmsworth, who became Lord Northcliffe, the Fleet Street genius of the time. As William Shawcross points out in Murdoch: The Making of a Media Empire (1997), a respectful and authoritative biography of Rupert Murdoch, Northcliffe's papers introduced many of the irresistibly vulgar come-ons associated with London tabloids—and, now, with the Fox network and the New York Post. A typical headline would read "DO DOGS COMMIT MURDER?" or "WHY JEWS DON'T RIDE BICYCLES." "A newspaper," Northcliffe told his acolytes, "is to be made to pay. Let it deal with what interests the mass of people. Let it give the public what it wants."

Keith Murdoch put this philosophy into effect when he returned to Australia. With Northcliffe's encouragement, he took over Melbourne's stagnant evening paper, the Herald, and revived it with racy features. Through the late 1920s he acquired other newspapers and turned them into a chain, to which he added radio stations. His son, Keith Rupert, was born in 1931. (There were also three daughters in the family.) Over the Depression decade Murdoch's newspaper and radio holdings expanded, and the family business entered a nationwide market struggle against Australia's established and respectable press dynasty, the Fairfax family, whose base was the Sydney Morning Herald. The Murdoch chain kept growing through the war and postwar years.

By the time young Rupert went off to Oxford, in 1950, Keith was in his mid-sixties, sick, withdrawing from the business, and greatly concerned about its future. While Rupert was largely frittering away his time at Oxford, his father discovered a plot led by his deputy to push him out of power within the company. "I can't die yet," Keith Murdoch said in 1952, according to Neil Chenoweth's recent book Rupert Murdoch: The Untold Story of the World's Greatest Media Wizard. "I've got to see my son established, not leave him like a lamb to be devoured and destroyed by these people." After Keith Murdoch's death, in the fall of 1952, company rivalries and disputes broke into the open, and the family's holdings were greatly reduced. Keith Murdoch had stated in his will that he hoped Rupert would "have the great opportunity of spending a useful, altruistic, and full life in newspaper and broadcasting activities"—that is, would succeed him in control of the company. But the company Rupert inherited, now called News Limited, was battered and troubled. Most of what is said about Rupert Murdoch and his operations was said about Keith Murdoch as well: that despite his great influence he always felt at odds with a respectable elite; that he understood himself to be running a family business; that he believed controversy was beneficial and understanding mass taste was indispensable. But Rupert Murdoch was also motivated to rebuild a family business that his father had created and partially lost.

Between the young Rupert Murdoch who took over an Australian family business in the early 1950s and today's globally recognized symbol of media power is a path described in hundreds of articles and numerous books. In reading through the vast public record, I was surprised to be reminded of how many dustups Murdoch has been involved in. He has been like Zelig, seemingly everywhere that important changes in media were taking place—but at the center of the action rather than the periphery.

He entered British journalism in the late 1960s and was soon in a tussle with Robert Maxwell for control of the British tabloid News of the World. Over the next fifteen years he mounted campaigns to take business and editorial control of the low-end Sun and the high-end Times and Sunday Times of London. In the mid-1980s, as Margaret Thatcher was fighting coal miners, Murdoch waged an epic battle against press unions and built an entirely new printing plant so as to operate with much cheaper labor.

He entered the U.S. newspaper world in the early 1970s, with a quiet takeover of the San Antonio Express and News; noisier takeovers of the New York Post and New York magazine soon followed. (It was under Murdoch that the Post published the great tabloid headline "HEADLESS BODY IN TOPLESS BAR.") He also owned, briefly and improbably, the Village Voice. To satisfy U.S. ownership requirements of the time, he applied for U.S. citizenship and was naturalized in 1985. Murdoch was forced to sell the Post in 1988, mainly because of the efforts of Senators Edward Kennedy and Ernest Hollings to overturn a previous waiver of ownership rules. But he bought it again, out of bankruptcy, in 1993.

His real entry into the American consciousness came with his move into television. Murdoch took over 20th Century Fox in the mid-1980s, and at about the same time announced a fanciful-sounding plan to assemble small TV stations into a fourth national network. In the late 1980s he bought the parent company of TV Guide and also began creating his Sky and Star satellite systems in Britain and Asia. In the early 1990s Fox Broadcasting shocked CBS by outbidding it for the rights to National Football League games—the first of many contracts that have made Fox the dominant broadcast sports network. Murdoch fell out with Ted Turner in the mid-1990s, and the two waged personal and business war. (After Turner compared Murdoch to Hitler, the Post ran the headline "IS TED NUTS? YOU DECIDE.") Murdoch started the Fox News Channel partly with the goal of overtaking and thus humiliating Turner's CNN.

Several striking themes recur in this saga. One is Murdoch's long-standing determination not simply to broaden News Corp's portfolio—by diversifying, for instance, into new or unrelated businesses—but to extend his strategic control of the supply and distribution channels on which his existing businesses rely. His father had moved from print to radio with the understanding that each medium could publicize and support the other. Murdoch's companies now constitute a production system unmatched in its integration. They supply content—Fox movies (Titanic, The Full Monty, There's Something About Mary), Fox TV shows (The Simpsons, Ally McBeal, When Animals Attack), Fox-controlled sports broadcasts, plus newspapers and books. They sell the content to the public and to advertisers—in newspapers, on the broadcast network, on the cable channels. And they operate the physical distribution system through which the content reaches the customers. Murdoch's satellite systems now distribute News Corp content in Europe and Asia; if Murdoch becomes DirecTV's largest single owner, that system will serve the same function in the United States.

In his biography of Murdoch, Neil Chenoweth, who has worked for years as an investigative reporter for the Australian Financial Review, stresses that the DirecTV deal is valuable to Murdoch mainly as a way of ensuring wide distribution for his movies and his news, sports, and original TV programming. "We are going to see a landslide of Murdoch content produced for DirecTV and his global satellite network, and it will just blow everybody else away," he recently wrote in an e-mail. The next big wave of media consolidation, Chenoweth predicted, would be driven by other companies trying to match what Murdoch had put together.

Another constant in his career is its embattled, roller-coaster quality. Murdoch is said to be popular and admired within his own organization, rather than resented, mocked, or gossiped about behind his back. But with business rivals he is always in feuds and showdowns, and not only high-profile ones like that with Turner. He has taken big risks (one associate describes Murdoch's making, in a matter of minutes, the billion-dollar decision to back Fox News "the way you or I might order lunch"), and his business has suffered serious reverses. In 1990, in an episode vividly described by Shawcross, Murdoch was nearly forced to liquidate News Corp after a bank in Pittsburgh refused to roll over a small but crucial portion of his corporate debt. Although admirers compare him to Bill Gates or John D. Rockefeller because of his appreciation of technology and his instinct for strategic advantage, Murdoch is perhaps best compared to Bill Clinton: his nature keeps getting him into predicaments from which his talent lets him escape.

Political involvement has been one more constant in his career. The simple view of Murdoch, especially among liberals who fear him, is that he is a dangerously obsessed conservative propagandist—Richard Mellon Scaife with a job. This is imprecise. The exact nature of his political views is a subject of some debate among his associates. Overall he is of course more right- than left-wing. Murdoch likes to refer to himself as a "moderate libertarian" rather than a "conservative" or, in U.S. terms, a Republican. Two of his lieutenants—Roger Ailes, who runs the Fox News Channel, and Bill Kristol, the editor of The Weekly Standard—have worked in Republican Party politics. Murdoch's own involvement with the party itself, as opposed to with specific politicians who might prove useful to him, has been limited. His associates report that he has never met George W. Bush, hard as it may be to believe. He has, though, developed a respectful relationship with Bill Clinton. Each has lunched at the other's office in New York, and Murdoch came away impressed by Clinton's ability to discuss impromptu almost any issue arising almost anywhere on earth. Associates of both say that despite the political differences between the men, they clicked because of complementary personalities: Murdoch loves to listen, and Clinton loves to talk.

The strongest element in Murdoch's conservatism is his taste for leaders who take clear, decisive, line-in-the-sand positions on important issues. That is what he admired in Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, and what he respects, post-September 11, in Donald Rumsfeld and George Bush. Where he strays furthest from Republican Party orthodoxy is on social issues—gay rights, public religion, "traditional family values," and so on. Given the vulgar-to-raunchy tone of Fox programs like Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire and That '70s Show, it would be awkward if Murdoch publicly pushed a conservative social agenda. As a personal rather than a political matter, Murdoch was known to be unhappy about the violent nihilism of the Brad Pitt movie Fight Club, which the Fox studios produced, and about an episode of Fox TV's recent Married by America in which shots of a woman's naked breasts were not digitally blurred. But he is usually happy with whichever show on Fox—or headline in the Post, or topless Page 3 model in the London Sun—draws a big audience. He is proud of The Simpsons for both its popularity and its wit. He has done voice-overs for a self-mocking appearance on the show, in the role of a grasping plutocrat.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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